Time Out saysA hit on the festival circuit last year, Jonathan Caouette’s idiosyncratic self-portrait is an extraordinary exercise in confession and manipulation. This Texas-born, self-taught filmmaker fell in love with cinema at the age of 11, when he began relentlessly documenting his unusual family on film and video. The camera was his crutch for nearly two decades until, in 2003, he employed desktop editing software to collate all his raw material into a highly emotional tour of his life.
And what a life. The heart of Caouette’s film is his fragile mother, Renee: a former child model who received unnecessary electric shock therapy as a child and has struggled with depression ever since. With Renee in and out of hospital, Caouette was adopted by his kooky grandparents, Adolph and Rosemary (his father was off the scene). Meanwhile, a precocious and very young Caouette threw himself into Houston’s underground gay, music, film and drugs scenes (imagine a 13-year-old dressing in drag to get into clubs). Here was a suburban boy who, aged 15 at high school, directed a stage version of David Lynch’s ‘Blue Velvet’ – to the music of Marianne Faithfull.
Devoid of voiceover, ‘Tarnation’ is driven by silent, text narration (‘Once upon a time in a small Texas town…’) and back-to-back hip music (Low, Cocteau Twins, songs from ‘Hair’). The effect is something like an extended music video spliced with documentary footage and movie clips (‘Friday the 13th Part II’, ‘Rosemary’s Baby’). It is in turns exhausting, confusing, engrossing and alienating, and inspires stimulating questions about the ethics of truth and privacy in documentary-making. The film’s later scenes are clearly bred of an increasing urgency to complete the film and are dominated by the disturbing effects of Renee’s lithium overdose. Much of this is uncomfortable, not least when Caouette’s grandfather begs him to switch off the camera. But, to my mind, Caouette is innocent of voyeurism or exploitation: this is a highly personal project born of a childish desire to understand the world through cinema. Unhealthy, perhaps. But never invalid and always intoxicating.
Fri Apr 22, 2005